I have not told this story before. I worry how it will be received. I don’t know the right language to express it other than my own thoughts and feelings. This post is not for people of color because they already know it. This is for white people living in suburbs and small towns who think this is a big city problem and “It’s not my town.”
Before moving to New York City, I drove every where. I got pulled over 3 times in 15 years; two speeding tickets and an illegal left hand turn.
The first year I was back in Michigan, I got pulled over 5 times. Each time it was for impeding traffic and I did not get a ticket.
I drove a dark grey, 1998 Chevy Venture van that was in storage for several years. It was in good shape.
The traffic stops were unlike any I had experienced in the past. The first one was in Monroe County on Dixie Highway near Sterling State Park. I was coming home from the park with my dogs. The sun was setting and it was twilight. My Poodle, Merlin, sat in the passenger seat and Indy, a Jack Russel Terrier, was in the back. I was driving down Dixie Highway at 50 mph, which is the speed limit. Flashing lights popped up behind me. My heart raced. What did I do? I pulled over and tried to calm down; I didn’t want to look suspicious.
It was a Monroe County Sheriff. I thought one of my running lights was out. As the sheriff approached my van, he unfastened the top of the holster of his gun. I had not experienced this before. I wrote it off as the new standard procedure on all traffic stops. Or maybe this guy was a cowboy. I said as little as possible.
I waited for the, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” This officer asked where I was going. He looked in the window and flashed his light on Merlin and his demeanor changed. The stern look on his face disappeared, but he seemed…annoyed… I guess is the best word. I thought I was going to get a ticket for Merlin being in the front seat. He didn’t ask if I’d been drinking or had any weapons. He asked to see my license, looked at it under his flashlight and handed it back. Then he explained he pulled me over because I was going 3 miles under the speed limit and was impeding traffic. There were no other cars on the road. I said I was not aware of it. He told me to keep an eye on it and that he was giving me a warning. I thanked him. He walked back to his car.
I remember being confused about it, but since I didn’t get a ticket, I didn’t think to much about it. Impeding traffic, never heard of it before.
Same thing happened in Flat Rock and Huron Township. Impeding traffic, didn’t get a ticket. On the third stop, I asked one of the officers if impeding traffic was a new law in Michigan and he got a little snappy with me. The oddest one was the second time I got stopped in Huron Township.
Merlin was a tall dog who often sat in the passenger seat. When he was in the passenger seat or the back seat, he was tall enough to be mistaken for a person, especially at night. When the officer got to my window he asked, “Who’s in the back? I said, “No one. Just my dogs.” He asked me two more times. “Who’s in the back?” And I said, “It’s a dog.” He asked me to take the dog out of the vehicle.
The back of the van only opened on the passenger side, I got out, called Merlin to the front and took him out through the driver’s side door. The officer seemed annoyed as he said, “Is that a Poodle?” I said yes and put Merlin back in the van. The officer seemed mad as he explained the impeding traffic law, like I tricked him somehow and was wasting his time.
After that, I had the speedometer on the van checked to see if it was working correctly. It was.
The scariest one was the night I was driving home from my sister’s house at around 10 pm. I was going down Middlebelt Road, again in Huron Township. There was a Huron Township police car behind me since I turned onto Middlebelt. I kept checking my speedometer and I was doing the speed limit. After about a mile, he turned on his lights. I thought, “Again?” It is frustrating to be pulled over repeatedly by the police. Your heart races every time and you are scared. There is the thought, “What if it’s not the real cops?”
This time there were two Huron Township SUV police vehicles that pulled me over. One cop walked up on the passenger side of my van. I saw him in the sideview mirror unholstering his gun as he sidled up to the window where Merlin was sitting. Merlin rarely barked at people. His fingers relaxed when he saw Merlin.
I thought, “Holy crap! Maybe my van matches the description of a vehicle used in a crime.” This is a rural area, it’s about 10 pm and it is dark out. I’m a woman alone. Thank God I had Merlin with me.
I rolled down my window and was asked to roll down the passenger window. I did. I asked the officer, “Did I do something wrong?” because I was at a loss. He asked me if I’d been drinking and if I had any weapons. I said no. He took my license and examined it with his flashlight. He handed it back and asked where I was going. I was heading home and explained where that was and the route I was taking to get there. The whole time the other cop is still standing on the passenger side with his hand on his holstered gun.
The first officer explained I was driving erratically and going 5 miles under the speed limit and went through the impeding traffic law as if I was five years old. I didn’t get a ticket.
It was puzzling and irritating. I felt I was being punished for driving an old van. But what could I do?
One day, sitting at a restaurant having breakfast with my Dad; our old neighbor came in and said, “There’s a black man stealing your van. He’s behind the wheel right now.” I paused a minute and realized he was referring to Merlin. Bells went off.
I was furious. I wanted to go home and rage at every police department that pulled me over. I wasn’t impeding traffic, it’s not my van, it’s not my driving–they thought Merlin was a black man!
That’s why I kept getting pulled over. They thought it was a black man in an old van. I was so angry I wanted to drive to Dearborn at night with Merlin in the passenger seat and create a big stink when I got pulled over. “Call the news!” I’d shout! I wanted to rage at someone. But who? I couldn’t prove any of it. If only I’d realized it as it happened.
There were plenty of times black men pulled up next to me when Merlin was in the passenger seat and said, “Hey, a brother dog.” I should have known. John Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charley,” Charley was also a Poodle, that he had to be careful driving in the South. He got in trouble a few times because people thought Charlie was a black man. How could I be so stupid!
I stood behind my van with Merlin in the passenger seat and could see how he was mistaken for a black man. I wish I had a photograph.
This happened to me 5 times in the span of about a year. I cannot imagine having it happen several times a week my entire life. As a white woman, getting stopped by the police is scary; it makes my heart race and my stomach hurt. I’m sure a black person’s fear and rage is a hundred times greater.
Since Merlin died, I have not been pulled over once.
This happens daily to black Americans. It’s not right. The fear is real. The rage is real. Black lives matter.
How do we change it?
For more information on how you can be part of the change, check out this excellent post by Michelle Webber on her blog King of States titled, “Racial Justice, A List of Resources for White People Who Are Not on Twitter 24 Hours a Day”
I recommend the book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” By Matthew Desmond.
He recommends some very simple changes to stop the eviction cycle that keeps so many in poverty. The first is changing the law so everyone who goes to housing court is represented by a court appointed attorney. It will enforce the laws that already exist. This is what I’m working on to make a change.
Those interested in reading more about Merlin, read the post, “My Friend Merlin” on this blog.